If you’ve ever gamed out World War II, you’ve likely seen something unfold. The player controlling the Nazi threat really gets into their role, decimating French villages and slaughtering civilians across Europe. It seems like an overly evil depiction of what amounts to real people who fought in an actual war, but the Nazi threat has always been characterized by its brutality. And many would agree that it’s not a fantastical representation, but more so the global view of Germany’s actions during the conflict. So, the question is – is this sort of lore in wargaming inappropriate and xenophobic, or is it simply touching on a real issue that shouldn’t be disregarded for the sake of not crossing proverbial social boundaries?
It’s far from an isolated concept, as any wargame featuring an antagonistic front will likely touch on the horrors and atrocities the so-called villains carried out. Wargaming may not require that degree of historical authenticity, but when you’re playing out real conflicts that shaped the ways of the world, why should one skirt over sensitive issues? The answer to that is usually an increased fear of xenophobia and the notion that these depictions are sensationalized and blown out of proportion.
However, a wargame that’s been carefully constructed from the ground up using past conflicts as reference isn’t intentionally careless in what they’re portraying. Take Black Powder Red Earth, for example. Echelon Software developed a take on the aftermath of the War in Iraq, likely well aware of the complex waters it would be wading through. The basis of the tabletop game deals with radical Islamist terrorists, failed Middle Eastern states, and the Private Military Contractors called upon by foreign governments to carry out deadly operations. Though the conflicts in Black Powder aren’t necessarily ripped from the pages of history, they interpret a potential scenario based on the region’s past conflicts and current climate.
Does the phrase “radical Islamic terrorist” suggest a racially motivated and politically skewed representation of the people of the Middle East? According to Jon Chang of Echelon Software, that certainly wasn’t the motivation, and they even brought in an Iraqi Spec Ops soldier who fought with the Islamic State to help navigate what would be undoubtedly difficult waters. Echelon wanted the Aayari Network to feel grounded in the real world, and the expertise of the Iraqi Spec Ops was among the best ways to achieve that aesthetic. What it also meant was that the game would include some of the nitty-gritty details that may make Black Powder appear xenophobic. The reality is, though, that it’s simply mimicking the past – and that’s what wargames set out to do.
This concept doesn’t stop with games set in real-world settings. Fantasy and science fiction bouts that serve as an allegory for a real conflict or complex relationship between cultures can appear xenophobic on the surface. But if you start to peel back the layers and realize that war unraveling in a distant universe really parallels the themes of World War II, it simply becomes that designer’s way of gaming history. They may appear xenophobic toward the army of aggressor aliens, but it’s just their interpretation of the Nazi’s actions during World War II.
Does that mean every instance of stereotyping or xenophobia in a wargame means no harm? It would be a little naive to think so, as with anything, personal beliefs can drive design and development. It just isn’t necessarily the reason behind some of the perceived problematic content is to disparage. Instead, it could be used to create a realistic scenario to help frame the history (or future) of the conflict better and inform players of the realities of war.